The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition


Gregory Hickok


W W Norton & Company Inc






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When the concept of mirror neurons was first announced in 1992 it appeared to be a major breakthrough in our understanding of how we learn, empathise and communicate. The theory was that our brains contain a special category of neuron that is designed to 'fire' regardless of whether an act is performed or merely observed. In this way our brain can learn from observing the actions of others by mimicking their neurological state.

Although the original research was conducted on monkeys, the theory of mirror neurons was so appealing that arguments in their favour began to proliferate at an exponential rate. However, despite the exuberance that many in the neuroscientific community have shown, the body of evidence that appears to argue against the existence of such cells is growing.

Now, Gregory Hickok, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California and a long-time sceptic of the mirror neuron theory has pulled together a wealthy of evidence to challenge the theory.

Perhaps the best summary of his book is that of Steven Pinker, who is quoted on the sleeve of the book as saying:

"Every now and again an idea from science escapes from the lab and takes on a life of its own as an explanation for all mysteries, a validation of our deepest yearnings, and irresistible bait for journalists and humanities scholars ... Hickok puts an end to this monkey business by showing that mirror neurons do not, in fact, explain language, empathy, society, and world peace. But this is not a negative exposé - the reader of this book will learn a great deal of the contemporary sciences of language, mind, and brain, and will find that the reality is more exciting than the mythology."

I chose to read this book as I too have been a mirror neuron sceptic for some time, so I guess it was nice to find someone with a great deal more knowledge than I share the same view.

However, besides providing a wealth of the empirical evidence to undermine the mirror neuron myth, Hickok also provides alternative theories and explanations of how learning and cognition may actually operate.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in empathy, cognition and learning regardless of your views on mirror neurons as it provides a significant amount of food for thought on a number of related topics.